Popular Delusions VI: Homeopathy

Before the advent of evidence-based medicine, a huge variety of quack nostrums and dubious cures flourished. Many of these have faded away with time – and in cases like radioactive water, this was almost certainly for the best. However, some superstitious treatments that predate scientific medicine are still being used today. One of the most prominent is homeopathy.

Invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the early 1800s, homeopathy claims that “like cures like”: a substance that produces symptoms of disease in a healthy person will cure those same symptoms in a sick person. (By this principle, one would assume that the homeopathic cure for a person who has been shot is to shoot him again.)

However, it’s not as simple as just administering these substances to the sick person. Instead, they must be successively diluted – adding one part remedy to nine parts water, mixing, adding one part of the resulting solution to nine parts water, and so on – repeating this process many times until, by our subsequently acquired understanding of atoms and molecules, there is not even one molecule of the original substance left. Not to worry, though, because homeopaths claim that the water “remembers” what used to be dissolved in it, so that the process of dilution actually increases rather than decreases the remedy’s effectiveness. (Incidentally, homeopathy also claims that that all illness comes from internally originating “derangement of the vital force’s normal harmonious vibratory frequency“, and that the “vibrational pattern” of the remedy is what gets the body back into shape.)

There is absolutely no rational basis by which this could work. Everything we have learned in the last two hundred years about how the world works rules this out, and if homeopathy could be shown to have significant curative effects, then practically everything we thought we knew about the laws of physics and the human body would have to be thrown out. However, there is no such effect. Large, well-designed studies routinely find that homeopathy is useless. Skeptico, for example, links to a Lancet review of 110 clinical trials which concluded that homeopathy does no more good than a placebo.

I don’t know for certain how Hahnemann came up with the idea of homeopathy, but based on how it’s claimed to work, I think I can offer a plausible speculation. Here’s what probably happened:

Searching for a new method of curing diseases, Hahnemann at first guessed that a toxic substance which produced symptoms in a healthy person would cure a disease with those same symptoms in a sick person. This approach did not work, and naturally it had terrible side effects. In a bid to remove these side effects while keeping the presumed curative effects, he tried a variety of experiments. One of these experiments entailed successively greater dilutions of these substances. Unbeknownst to him, he had actually diluted his formulas to the point where none of the active ingredient was left. (Avogadro’s work on molarity and molecules was not published until over fifty years later.) But when he administered the result to patients, they showed improvement without showing any of the harmful side effects.

Knowing what we now know, it is obvious why this worked. The side effects ceased because none of the harmful substance was left. The improvement occurred because of his patients’ belief in the treatment, the same improvement that often occurs in people receiving care that they believe will help them. In other words, what Hahnemann actually discovered was the placebo effect. Believing he was on to something, he never compared the effectiveness of his “potentized” solutions of water against doses of ordinary water not prepared using any special method at all, which would have shown him his error.

Nevertheless, homeopathic medicine was a hit, and it is easy to see why. In Hahnemann’s era, the scientific approach to medicine was rudimentary at best. Treatments were based on old, discredited superstitions such as the theory of the four bodily humors, and many of them, such as bloodletting, were actively harmful. Compared to these, Hahnemann’s approach was an improvement because it simply did nothing, allowing the body’s natural recuperative powers to work without interference.

Of course, we now have far more effective treatments that do not cause unnecessary harm, so there is no longer any good reason to rely on homeopathic medicine. And in any case, the idea that water “remembers” what substances it has come in contact with was absurd from the beginning. It is a particularly silly bit of magical thinking, and the logical gaps in the idea should have been obvious even in Hahnemann’s day.

For example, during the process of preparation, how does the water “know” which substance it is supposed to concentrate? In addition to whatever the homeopath chooses to add to it, any reasonable volume of water, no matter how pure or filtered, is bound to contain at least minute quantities of all kinds of toxins and contaminants – bacterial proteins, viruses, insect secretions, human and animal skin cells, heavy metals, natural radionuclides, pesticides, fertilizers, arsenic, asbestos, industrial byproducts, and so on. (See this list from the EPA). Are we to believe that water can somehow tell the difference between the one remedy the homeopath adds to it and all the other dissolved molecules it contains, and selectively amplifies only the former?

On the other hand, what if the homeopathic preparation of water does indeed amplify the curative properties of every substance dissolved in it? In that case, the probability is very good that any reasonably sized body of water will naturally have come in contact with some or all of homeopathy’s chosen remedies at some point in the past. By homeopathic principles, the more dilute the remedy, the more concentrated its curative effect. Therefore, it follows that any glass of water must be a homeopathic panacea, already containing an extremely dilute and therefore highly effective version of any “remedy” one would care to name. It seems pointless, therefore, for homeopaths to waste their time and money stocking medicine cabinets with specially prepared remedies for different types of disease. Whenever they feel ill, all they should have to do is drink a glass of tap water, and they should be cured of whatever afflicts them. But this would not generate much revenue for homeopathic practitioners, so it is probably not surprising that they do not talk about this.

Other posts in this series:

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Dang it, Ebon, your last paragraph hit upon exactly what my secret idea for a homeopathic business would be, if I wasn’t morally opposed to engaging in fraud: bottled distilled water marketed as a homeopathic cure all (since that water is bound to have come into contact with pretty much everything).

  • http://nesoo.wordpress.com/ Nes

    Dang it, Ebon, your last paragraph hit upon exactly what my secret idea for a homeopathic business would be, if I wasn’t morally opposed to engaging in fraud: bottled distilled water marketed as a homeopathic cure all (since that water is bound to have come into contact with pretty much everything).

  • Darren

    Homeopathy is clearly the placebo effect in action, with the added benefit of hydrating the body nicely. How many times does the doctor tell you to drink plenty of water when you’re ill?

  • Darren

    Homeopathy is clearly the placebo effect in action, with the added benefit of hydrating the body nicely. How many times does the doctor tell you to drink plenty of water when you’re ill?

  • Jim Baerg

    I wonder if another factor that helped to confuse the early homeopaths, was that anything that is beneficial is moderate doses is harmful in larger doses. There might have been cases in which someone was suffering from an overdose of X & then getting X in the lower beneficial range resulted in the person recovering.

  • Jim Baerg

    I wonder if another factor that helped to confuse the early homeopaths, was that anything that is beneficial is moderate doses is harmful in larger doses. There might have been cases in which someone was suffering from an overdose of X & then getting X in the lower beneficial range resulted in the person recovering.

  • Alex Weaver

    Another possibility that occurs to me is the fact that the body tends to develop a tolerance to certain substances. If dilluted beyond the point where they’re fairly toxic but not beyond the point where there’s still a non-insignificant amount of the substance, repeated application might increase the body’s tolerance. Of course, where homeopathy is offered as a cure rather than a preventative, that factor is unlikely to work.

    PS: personal idiosyncrasy, but the use of “powers” to mean “properties” or “abilities” in a physiological or medical context always makes me cringe; if nothing else it offers an opportunity for quote-mining. x.x

  • Alex Weaver

    Another possibility that occurs to me is the fact that the body tends to develop a tolerance to certain substances. If dilluted beyond the point where they’re fairly toxic but not beyond the point where there’s still a non-insignificant amount of the substance, repeated application might increase the body’s tolerance. Of course, where homeopathy is offered as a cure rather than a preventative, that factor is unlikely to work.

    PS: personal idiosyncrasy, but the use of “powers” to mean “properties” or “abilities” in a physiological or medical context always makes me cringe; if nothing else it offers an opportunity for quote-mining. x.x

  • bassmanpete

    Not long after I came to Australia (in 1983) I started suffering severe headaches. They always started on a Saturday morning & by the afternoon I just had to lie down in a dark room. All that three different doctors could do was prescribe a variety of painkillers that lessened the pain but did nothing to solve the problem.

    After having about 50% of my weekends ruined over a 3 year period I met a woman who suggested I see a naturopath. I told her I thought that naturopaths were quacks & continued to suffer the headaches. Eventually I received an ultimatum – “See a naturopath or else we’re through.” So I saw a naturopath! He gave me some drops to take and, I think more importantly, told me to stay away from sugar & dairy products. I took the drops even though I didn’t believe they’d have any effect. I also stopped having biscuits, cakes, cheese, etc. and started having tea & coffee without milk & sugar. Result? Only three incapacitating headaches in the last 18 years. In other words, I got my weekends back.

    I agree with you, Adam, about homeopathy. But I also think that homeopaths & naturopaths have for a long time known the effect that different foods have on us that modern medical practitioners have only recently started to recognise. And they’re still too quick to prescribe the latest drug that in many cases only suppresses one’s symptoms rather than effecting a cure.

    Of course, we now have far more effective treatments that do not cause unnecessary harm

    Anyone care for some Vioxx?

  • TEP

    It’s probably a good thing that homeopathy doesn’t work. If it did, imagine what terrorists could do with it.

    For instance, atropine is well known for inhibiting the action of acetylcholine (responsible for causing nerves to fire). If homeopathy worked, massive dilution of atropine would have the opposite effect, namely greatly increasing the activity of acetylcholine. One class of compounds famous for doing this is the nerve gases – their method of killing is to cause acetylcholine levels to build up so that all nerves continually fire until the victim’s energy is all used up, resulting in their death. So all a terrorist would need to do would be to dilute atropine down to homeopathic levels, dump the solution in the ocean, and all life on Earth would be wiped out as all the waters of the ocean are converted into a homeopathic concoction many millions of times more toxic than sarin gas.

  • TEP

    It’s probably a good thing that homeopathy doesn’t work. If it did, imagine what terrorists could do with it.

    For instance, atropine is well known for inhibiting the action of acetylcholine (responsible for causing nerves to fire). If homeopathy worked, massive dilution of atropine would have the opposite effect, namely greatly increasing the activity of acetylcholine. One class of compounds famous for doing this is the nerve gases – their method of killing is to cause acetylcholine levels to build up so that all nerves continually fire until the victim’s energy is all used up, resulting in their death. So all a terrorist would need to do would be to dilute atropine down to homeopathic levels, dump the solution in the ocean, and all life on Earth would be wiped out as all the waters of the ocean are converted into a homeopathic concoction many millions of times more toxic than sarin gas.

  • http://www.auniversenamedbob.com Matt R

    Hello All,

    To piggyback off of what bassmanpete said, my mother had severe headaches her whole life. Recently she quit eating sugar and has had a drastic reduction in her headaches.

    **Disclaimer** I recognize this has nothing with the OP, but Bassman’s comment made me think of it.

    Ebonmuse,

    Even though the logic is incorrect, it is rather ironic that many immunizations are dilutions or derivatives of the very pathogens that are involved in viral disease.

    Also, I think that it is interesting that the term “placebo” is generally used negatively, but I think that it represents a remarkable capacity of the mind to somehow improve the condition of the body. There are studies that show that up to 30% of some treatments are due to the placebo effect. I think that instead of thinking about this as a negative thing, it may be useful to think of this as a positive thing; the ability to enhance the body’s healing power. I am not saying that you negatively use the word placebo in your post. It just made me think of the placebo topic which I have been mulling around for awhile.

    What do you think?

    Matt

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    OK, Ebonmuse, you’ve inspired me to found a new church. It will be called the “Church of Homeopathic Christianity” (or maybe “The Church of Christ, The Homeopath”). Whatever. The idea is that everything we eat, drink or breathe once contained at least some tiny bits of Jesus: his body, blood, urine, perspiration, toe jam, whatever. The important part of this church doctrine is that we are thus continuously taking in substances that still have His vibrational pattern (or molecular memory). No need for communion of bread or wine at this new church. We’re getting communion every time we breathe (or eat a snow cone or take an aspirin).

    Perhaps some conservatives might join this new Church under the mistaken assumption that “homeopathic” means “hates the gays.” Informational pamphlets should be distributed to clear up this misconception.

    On a more serious note, I know an M.D. who was schooled in Germany but practices at a major hospital here in the U.S. She swears by homeopathic medicine and tells me that many European doctors incorporate homeopathic into their practices.

  • http://www.dangerousintersection.org Erich Vieth

    OK, Ebonmuse, you’ve inspired me to found a new church. It will be called the “Church of Homeopathic Christianity” (or maybe “The Church of Christ, The Homeopath”). Whatever. The idea is that everything we eat, drink or breathe once contained at least some tiny bits of Jesus: his body, blood, urine, perspiration, toe jam, whatever. The important part of this church doctrine is that we are thus continuously taking in substances that still have His vibrational pattern (or molecular memory). No need for communion of bread or wine at this new church. We’re getting communion every time we breathe (or eat a snow cone or take an aspirin).

    Perhaps some conservatives might join this new Church under the mistaken assumption that “homeopathic” means “hates the gays.” Informational pamphlets should be distributed to clear up this misconception.

    On a more serious note, I know an M.D. who was schooled in Germany but practices at a major hospital here in the U.S. She swears by homeopathic medicine and tells me that many European doctors incorporate homeopathic into their practices.

  • James Bradbury

    Perhaps some conservatives might join this new Church under the mistaken assumption that “homeopathic” means “hates the gays.” Informational pamphlets should be distributed to clear up this misconception.

    LMBO – thank you, you’ve made my day!

    toe jam

    I’ve only heard this expression once before…

    “Got to be good-looking cos he’s so hard to see!”

  • James Bradbury

    Perhaps some conservatives might join this new Church under the mistaken assumption that “homeopathic” means “hates the gays.” Informational pamphlets should be distributed to clear up this misconception.

    LMBO – thank you, you’ve made my day!

    toe jam

    I’ve only heard this expression once before…

    “Got to be good-looking cos he’s so hard to see!”

  • Mrnaglfar

    Adam, I’d thought you’d enjoy this.

    http://youtube.com/watch?v=bkhQLt1vbWU

  • bassmanpete

    Mrnaglfar, I thought the guy was serious at first but the more it went on the more I thought “This is a leg pull!” Then when he said “It’s the 21st century” and the text on the screen read “Let’s make it feel like the 14th” I just burst out laughing.

  • Stephen

    The term homeopathy actually covers three completely different things.
    1) Classical homeopaths insist that remedies must be individually tailored to the sufferer (according to principles which never properly get explained).
    2) The homeopathic products that one buys over the counter are however one-size-fits-all. Note that these two interpretations of homeopathy are mutually incompatible.
    3) Some substances sold as homeopathic are not actually homeopathic at all (relying on neither the similia principle nor high dilutions). They are herbal remedies which are sold as homeopathic because it’s easier to get away with quackery under the homeopathic label in some countries. These remedies may have some effect. And in some cases it might even be beneficial.

    So if you ever meet someone defending homeopathy, first get them to define which version of homeopathy they are talking about. (Chances are they haven’t a clue.)

  • Stephen

    The term homeopathy actually covers three completely different things.
    1) Classical homeopaths insist that remedies must be individually tailored to the sufferer (according to principles which never properly get explained).
    2) The homeopathic products that one buys over the counter are however one-size-fits-all. Note that these two interpretations of homeopathy are mutually incompatible.
    3) Some substances sold as homeopathic are not actually homeopathic at all (relying on neither the similia principle nor high dilutions). They are herbal remedies which are sold as homeopathic because it’s easier to get away with quackery under the homeopathic label in some countries. These remedies may have some effect. And in some cases it might even be beneficial.

    So if you ever meet someone defending homeopathy, first get them to define which version of homeopathy they are talking about. (Chances are they haven’t a clue.)

  • Niklaus Pfirsig

    Perhaps one of the things that convinces the practitioners of homeopathy is a vague association with the accepted medical practices of vaccination and allergic desensitization. The idea of intentionally introducing an allergen or pathogen into the body, on the surface sounds similar, but is quite different. With vaccination, a live but somewhat less virulent pathogen (or in many cases, inactive viral proteins ) is introduced into a healthy person in order to trigger the immune system into producing a pre-emptive immunity to the targeted pathogen. In the case of de-sensitizing against an allergen, components of the allergen are injected in relatively small quantities during times when the allergen is not present. In a small percentage of people, this actually reduces the serverity of reactions to the actual allergen.
    Homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point of having no real effect, and administered to the sick.

    Naturopathic does have some merit, and to a very large extent, the pharma industry is based on naturopathic remedies. One of the most sucessful medications of all time is aspirin, which is based on an old natural remedy (willow bark tea).

  • Vjatcheslav

    Hahneman took some kinine, used to treat malaria, and he had an allergical reaction to it. He got fever, which is typical of malaria, so he thought he had found the reason why kinine worked against malaria, and he developped the similia-principe (like cures like) as formulation.

    In his time Hahneman was quite progressive, because he opposed the traditional medicine, consisting of things like laxation, letting the patient bleed so the bad blood would go away,…, and while searching better medicines, he tried kinine, with the known results.

    So, homeopathy is based on one observation which was atypical for the general population. A bad form of science, which has now degenerated into a form of superstition.

    The source is http://www.skepp.be/artikels/alternatieve-behandelingen/homeopathie-geloof-of-wetenschap, but it is in Dutch, so it could be that it isn’t really usefull.

    Greetings from Puiveldistan.

  • Polly

    Ja, Vjatcheslav, dat is niet zo hulpvaardig voor ons Amerikanen.

  • lpetrich

    Have you ever heard of the homeopath who died of an overdose? They forgot to take their medicine.

    I couldn’t resist that joke, and it is not original with me.

    But more seriously, I’ve seen the argument that Niklaus Pfirsig mentioned, even though it is specific to the operation of the immune system and even though it is a poor analogy for homeopathic medicines.

    In one of the response threads at Richard Dawkins’s site, I saw an argument from a defender of homeopathy who claimed that homeopathy treats a patient as an integrated unit rather than as a set of parts that can be treated in isolation from each other. He never explained how that was supposed to work, however.

    BTW, Richard Dawkins is preparing a documentary on crackpottery and irrationalism; he might be discussing homeopathy in a bit of it.

  • Jim Baerg

    The Skepticality podcast has an interview with Dr. Simon Singh who has done some work exposing dangerous homeopathic practices in Britain.
    Go to http://www.skepticality.com/index.php
    Then click on ‘Listen to Past Episodes’ & download episode #37

  • Dr. C. J. Varghese

    Why turning against Homoeopathy alleging it to be non science. Yes unless and untill the definition of science is altered as a systematized knowledge about the truths, which essentially implies many immaterial concepts, Homoeopaths do not claim it to be a science. The parameters of material science alone does not explore or expose the truth in its entirety. Do you agree that love, happiness, beauty etc are truths? Do you agree that arts like music, painting etc have a truthful existence? Do you think that all about those immaterials but truths are scientifically explained? Whereas Allopaths believe that health is something material, Homoeopaths believe that health is a Dynamis just as Disease and Cure are also Dynamic. The roots of diseases as per the latest medical knowledge are genetic. But does everything regarding the genetic science explained away? Only if somebody can think in a spiritual manner, he can understand Homoeopathy.
    About 95% or more of the human individuals on earth are believers of God. I believe at least many of the iconoclastic writers against Homoeopathy are also believers. Please explain how scientific is your faith and religiousness? Before you turn against Homoeopathy , a baby system of medicine, can you attack the religions of the world ? Many truths are born not in the laboratories outside but in the laboratories of the mind. Do you love your child or mother after testing and verifying the veracity of your love? The music of a great musician is sweet to hear and we enjoy. You cut his throat open to see the music in this vocal cords! There are several truths remaining to be explored in terms of material truths. To understand the existence of roots, you need not everytime pluck the plant and see the roots. Reason is given to the people to understand truths. There are increasing number of people who understand Homoeopathy and who are benefitted by its safe , simple, scientific and economic and effective benefits— Dr. C. J. Varghese, Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala, India- 670141, Ph: 919447019733, 04602202033

  • http://www.patheos.com/blog/daylightatheism Ebonmuse

    About 95% or more of the human individuals on earth are believers of God. I believe at least many of the iconoclastic writers against Homoeopathy are also believers. Please explain how scientific is your faith and religiousness? Before you turn against Homoeopathy , a baby system of medicine, can you attack the religions of the world ?

    I approved this one because I needed a good laugh.

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    There are increasing number of people who understand Homoeopathy and who are benefitted by its safe , simple, scientific and economic and effective benefits— Dr. C. J. Varghese, Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala, India- 670141, Ph: 919447019733, 04602202033

    Dr!!????? Abandon hope!!

  • http://www.myspace.com/driftwoodduo Steve Bowen

    There are increasing number of people who understand Homoeopathy and who are benefitted by its safe , simple, scientific and economic and effective benefits— Dr. C. J. Varghese, Taliparamba, Kannur, Kerala, India- 670141, Ph: 919447019733, 04602202033

    Dr!!????? Abandon hope!!

  • Nes

    Don’t worry Steve, that’s probably a doctorate in homeopathy.

    Oh, wait…